The pandemic has changed the way we work, perhaps forever. Only in the next 5 to 10 years will we be able to fully map how and to what effect the workplace landscape has changed. While staff have scrambled to set up home offices and adapt to zoom meetings and other virtual parameters, there’s something missing that nobody’s talking about that is having a far-reaching impact.
Our teams are missing the proverbial water cooler. Every workplace has always had a space or a time for some chit-chat. It used to be a smoke break and now it often takes place at the nearby coffee shop where the barista remembers everyone’s "usual" orders. It’s that time to decompress and talk about something other than work. Small talk.
Small talk has sometimes been the subject of some anxiety for staff. Some people don’t enjoy the superficial banter before a meeting comes to order. For some, it feels fake and a waste of their time. For those people, it’s probably easier to adapt to the remote working model and it feels much more efficient having limited engagement with colleagues and only on a purely work-related level.
For others, it’s been a major adjustment. They might not have been able to put their finger on what was going on, but things just haven't been going as smoothly as they did before. They’re not getting the same kind of access to information and their boss isn’t responding as usual. On closer inspection, it’s because the bridges forged by small talk aren’t there. The bonding that happens over small talk on trips to conferences and in other downtime is not there, so managers don’t respond in the same way as previously. A request for information is just another item on someone’s to-do list, rather than a quick ‘oh! by the way!’ Bridges of common experience - similar experiences with family members, health, and other life matters, are much harder if not impossible to forge in the absence of a water cooler.
So what’s the upshot?
This article takes a look at the effect of small talk and its absence. How can we adapt to a non-physical working environment as far as small talk is concerned? Does it really matter if we don’t small talk or how can we adapt our interactions to compensate?
Small talk has often been something derided as petty and a waste of time. Managers worry about the distraction of small talk. They discourage workers from talking, worried they’ll lose focus, or procrastinate from the job. Or, management worries small talk will breed gossip, which is always a danger in toxic work environments where discontent and negativity have an opportunity to brew along with the coffee.
While some of these concerns are valid, the positives can outweigh the negatives when you can manage them. To prevent gossip, managers need to foster open and safe forums for addressing potential problems and they need to address staff concerns early to make sure problems don’t fester and infect others. And if small talk happens in coffee breaks and other natural pauses in the workday, it’s not really a distraction. On the contrary, small talk can be a strength that managers should aim to foster.
The Harvard Business Review conducted a 15-day study on 151 employees and discovered that small talk could be both uplifting and distracting, but that the positives outweigh the negatives. The study showed that on days that staff engaged in more small talk than usual, they reported feeling more positive and less burned out. They were more willing to help colleagues, but less focused and engaged in tasks which limited their ability to assist others. However, the study found that people who were good at reading others and adjusting their conversations in response to others were less disrupted by small talk. The study also found the conversations didn’t have to be long or of any particular depth to deliver benefits.
Because small talk helps people feel connected it is highly beneficial for teams because it boosts collaboration. In these short encounters, people are able to connect and over time especially, get past talking about the weather to make uplifting connections with one another over common ground. Small talk is the fertile ground for ‘me too’ empathy building. When two staff members start talking about what they’re doing after work or on the weekend, they discover similarities in their lives they might never have known they shared. While these can be superficial, like driving the same car, for example, if you really love cars, it can be quite a kick to discuss the ins and outs of your car model with someone else that knows exactly what you’re talking about. As superficial as it is, it’s building an important connection. This person ‘is like me’. And when these two people may later be at odds in a work setting about how to approach an issue, the groundwork of their car appreciation will determine a more open and solution-focused outcome than if they didn’t have a shared connection. It is more difficult to be empathetic, to be able to put yourself in another’s position and work forward to a mutually beneficial outcome if you have no common ground. The easier it is to see another person as ‘just like me’, the easier it is to move beyond conflict to finding a solution.
Connections built through small talk are not only important in potentially diffusing conflict and improving cooperation, but building a ‘me too’ mentality also helps build positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
For example, while two staff might find out they have the same car and bond over that, they might discover something deeper that connects them, such as having family members suffering the same illness or perhaps separation from a partner. Finding someone else at work that is dealing with or has dealt with the same personal traumas can forge a real bond between staff. Not only will these two staff members have more productive collaboration in a team setting and be more likely to be able to resolve conflicts and find creative solutions, but as far as their own well-being is concerned, they will be much happier in a workplace where they feel surrounded by at least one other person who knows what they’re going through at home.
As much as we can concentrate on the job, life’s ups and downs such as sick parents, divorce, and children who are struggling at school are the parts of our lives that we bring with us to work each day. Being able to lighten that load during a quick chat with someone else in the office who’s been there or who’s also going through it can lighten someone’s load and help them to more easily get through not only their workday but also the challenging phase of life they are going through.
So small talk can sometimes be pretty big talk. Small talk can build the emotional connections and psychological safety that is necessary to form a high-performing team.
Small talk is also a necessary element of any forum of discussion or negotiation much like the role an appetizer plays in a good meal. Small talk serves to put people at ease and enable a transition to more serious topics. Small talk is like a form of manners, It requires extending yourself in politeness to a stranger, to make another person feel at ease. It’s crucial to any job interview or performance review as simply good manners and best practice to calm someone’s nerves before getting into the meat of the discussion. Good managers have a compendium of tidbits of information in their heads about their staff and clients - who likes dogs, play guitar, support their football team, have a child the same age as theirs etc etc that they can draw on as an icebreaker to put another at ease before a more intense discussion that might need to be had.
And people remember it. We can all think of the managers, colleagues, or service people we’ve encountered like our local grocer or bank manager who can always remember our pet’s name or the age of our child like a superpower. These people know the power of small talk to build bridges. They know how the little details they remember are an act of kindness they can extend to their network to put them at ease. Putting people at ease is not just a polite irrelevancy. The grocer who asks about your child and talks about his own and commiserates about how he can’t get them off Roblox and offers you a free piece of fruit for them is the grocer who knows how to build returning customers. The grocer is building trust with you and you’re more likely to visit his shop and exchange a few pleasantries and smiles again and again because you feel more at home there. By putting you at ease, he makes you feel like you belong in his shop. And the more you go, the greater rapport you build and the more you become his customer and he becomes your grocer.
Small talk at work is also important to help people feel seen. For a few moments of small talk, they become more than their job title, they become human. One employee that Harvard Business Review surveyed commented, ‘Your coworkers don’t necessarily need to know every detail of your life, but it certainly helps everyone feel like a real person.’
In making business deals, small talk is considered an art form. Not only something incidental to workplaces but a skill that’s very necessary for anyone who wants to get ahead. It’s a risk-free option - it costs nothing, except perhaps a bit of embarrassment, and smart professionals know that the results can be more than worth the effort. The thing about small talk is you’re never sure where it’s going to go. And there’s that additional element of six degrees of separation. Start talking to someone and you never know not only what you might have in common, but who you might know in common and where those connections might lead. No matter how disconnected we might be in this modern life, one thing will never change - people always rely on word of mouth to do business, even when it’s appropriated by Facebook ‘recommendations’. Worst case scenario, engaging in small talk can be a bit awkward and take a little bit of time out of your day, but the best-case scenario is the cultivation of a productive working relationship.
Another thing about small talk is it requires you to pay attention. It requires you to be present, put away your phone, look someone in the eye, listen to what they’re saying, and respond appropriately. While this is simple stuff we start teaching preschoolers, it’s not to be underestimated in a fast-paced world where we are rarely present or used to interacting personally as opposed to across screens and via text messages. It’s this very presence that is part of what’s going on psychologically when somebody says they feel seen. It is because they are literally being seen. Someone is taking 2 minutes out of their busy day to look to see them - not text them or forward their message to someone down the line but to interact with them personally and in the same physical space. It’s an acknowledgment. I see you. I observe you and what you’re saying and I give you some of my time and energy. And that’s what we’re noticing is askew during the pandemic. Without the opportunity to be present for each other in the workplace, people feel insecure about their social stronghold let alone professional positioning in the company. Take away all the incidental social interactions we’ve taken for granted countless times and often dismissed as annoying previously, and so many of us are left feeling a little left out in the cold.
So if we’ve at all convinced you that small talk is something worth partaking in, the question is, how do you do it? For some people, small talk comes naturally. It’s culturally dependent and there’s a lot of cultures that have it in their veins. But for others, it doesn’t come easy and feels fraught with awkwardness. What on earth do you say? Especially when you don’t know someone very well if at all?
The brilliance of small talk is superficiality. The very thing that makes some people condemn it as a waste of time or just plain awkward is actually the genius of small talk and the key to doing it expertly. It’s supposed to be superficial.
Because that means you’re safe. You’re safe from opening up a pandora’s box of people’s deepest darkest confessions and autobiographies. You’re also safe from things turning nasty and putting you in difficult positions - small talk is NOT gossip. It’s not malicious. It’s about the weather and non-threatening, non-political, uncontroversial, safe, everyday topics to which everyone can add a comment. It’s a non-threatening way to make a connection. It doesn’t take any prior knowledge or expertise. Small talk is the great leveler. So to do it properly, you need to keep it superficial, but if you relax, it might gently take you deeper. Open with the weather and see where it takes you. Maybe nowhere beyond a smile, some genuine eye contact, and human interaction, which especially now in these isolated times, could well be the only human contact another person may have for the rest of their day and potentially longer. So keep it light and then when you have the rapport you can open up to something a bit deeper that’s appropriate for a brief conversation.
We've already discussed ease, which is especially important in mastering small talk with co-workers and managers must develop this rapport with their staff. Again, the aim is to make the other person feel at ease. This could be about picking a light subject of small talk you know they are interested in or that has relevance for them, whether it’s a sport or TV show, some aspect of their lives, like parenting or something as general as weekend plans. Regardless of what opener you use, aim to make their day a little brighter. Inject plenty of smiles and a compliment never goes astray, but make it genuine.
In the workplace, you can quickly garner admiration for your small talk superpowers by exercising your memory. As you start engaging in small talk more, make mental notes of little details - names and locations. If someone is telling you about their plans to go away that weekend, imagine how special they’ll feel when you see them a few weeks later and ask them how their aunt in Calgary, Atlanta or Sonora is doing. Obviously, the more details you can remember, the more points you can score. Just asking someone about how their trip was checks a box, but including the destination gets another point for remembering where they were going, and any other details you can remember, like who they were visiting there, is going to send your small talk superpower through the roof. People love to talk about their weekends and especially trips away, so this is a surefire winner to boost some happy vibes.
And for team leads, also remembering the not-so-happy details is a quick way to build trust with your staff and make them feel as if they work in an empathetic workplace. If you remember to ask about family or even pets who are having surgery - remembering their names of course and asking shortly after the surgery, not six months later - staff will feel as if you have really listened and care about what’s going on for them as people, not just about their job performance.
Another important tactic to mastering small talk is to really listen rather than be planning what you’re going to say next. Great small talk is not about manufactured responses, but really listening to what the other person is saying and asking the right questions. Insightful questions show how well you’ve been listening. They also encourage further rapport when you can ask a question that gently goes deeper or takes up a thread the other person is leaving for you. For example, a colleague might comment that it’s fantastic that there’s going to be some sun on the weekend because they can take their dad out. If you follow up on the thread of dad, you might find out your colleague’s dad has dementia and he’s taking his dad on respite care for the day to give his mom a break. In this way, you could have a two-minute small talk conversation with a colleague that actually goes quite deep. If you can stay present and open in the same way, you might be able to relate your own experiences with a sick parent or a dad that loves being out in the sun too because he’s an avid fisherman, or even a recommendation of a great spot for your colleague to take his dad on the weekend, depending on where the conversation goes.
Yes, it’s OK when making small talk to talk about the same boring topics. The idea is you can use that as a springboard and make it personal like the previous example of where a conversation about the weather can go. However, you can think up some other topics based on your own life as well as a colleague’s interests. If something interesting has happened to you that week, you can share it. Or look around to your surroundings, an upcoming event, or even offer a compliment. Just make it genuine and it has to be something light and suitable to small talk.
If you want to get a conversation going it can be a good idea to ask an introductory question like where are you from or what are you doing after this? The way to keep a conversation going is to follow up with a more open question so they have to elaborate. When asking questions, be aware of sharing as much as asking - you don’t want it to feel like an interrogation!
Remember it isn’t just what you say but how you say it that matters. In small talk when there’s very little time to build rapport, it’s all about body language. Colleagues can read immediately if you’re just going through the motions. Just as much as they can tell whether you’re really listening or not, they can tell whether you really care or whether you’re just putting on a front. You’ll soon get a reputation of being insincere or fake. Yes, small talk is supposed to be superficial in that it doesn’t matter so much what you talk about. But you’re not supposed to be superficial! Refer to all the other suggestions of how to listen, stay focused, and remember small details about people to be authentically interested. Ultimately, you won’t have to try so hard. If you mean it, people will be able to tell.
But what do we do now that work interactions are over emails or a zoom call? When work communications are narrowed down to the bricks and mortar of tasks and delivery how are workplaces faring without small talk?
These are definitely challenging times and the analysis of how we have really been affected can only truly be accounted for once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, but right now some things are clear.
When people feel emotionally connected, teamwork and cooperation get a boost. Small talk encounters in the workplace help foster connection. Working from home blurs the line between home and work and some people are struggling to navigate the grey territory and challenges of an online working environment. Small talk can help people to make the transition from an ‘at home’ to a professional mindset, so it is particularly useful at the start of a meeting to get everyone in the right frame of mind. It’s a good idea at the start of online meetings for some greetings and fun questions and updates to ease everyone into business.
Something that’s also become popular is virtual lounges in applications like Slack and Teams. In virtual lounges, staff can socialize and get together for virtual events like quizzes, movies, or book clubs. While it may feel a little weird, teams that have migrated social activities online have found it beneficial, and like any of the changes during the pandemic, experience a new normal of sharing recipes, funny photos, or Netflix recommendations with their colleagues.
There are also new apps popping up like The Water Cooler, a bot for Slack that simulates the water cooler conversation time, complete with an inbuilt timer so it doesn’t eat into productivity.
The most important thing in a virtual working environment is that staff don’t feel alone. Teams can get around this by structuring regular check-ins from one team member to another as well as from the team leader to team members. Whether this is over email, text, or a call, the point is to generate some of the benefits we’re missing from small talk. That someone is seen. That people are more than just their job. That someone takes 2 minutes out of their day to listen, offer a smile, be present and put their phone down.
The solution is surprisingly simple, just not incidental anymore. We can’t take for granted what used to happen incidentally around the office and in the course of working and traveling. Connection is important. Even the seemingly random, 2-minute connections between staff at the coffee machine are important. The absence of those seemingly meaningless distractions as workforces go remote shows us how important they are. We need to build them into our new normal working culture regardless of how contrived and forced they might initially feel if we want to improve the well-being of our team members. If we want to maintain levels of trust and cooperation that might have taken years to build up in our teams, now is the time to make sure bridges don’t collapse. Workplaces need to nurture opportunities for connection online that aren’t just limited to online meetings. It needs to include some social time and small talk, whether it’s through virtual clubs, social events, or even apps. It’s just a little detail, but it’s often the little details that matter.